At the current stage of its (ongoing) development, Ride Again Productions' new two-act musical version of North Carolina novelist Clyde Edgerton's picaresque novel Killer Diller is more of a concert than a musical play. The rollicking mixture of traditional blues and gospel songs and new numbers written expressly for this production by Clyde Edgerton, Turner Walston, and Billy McCormick really rocked Swain Hall last Sunday afternoon.
Electrifying instrumental accompaniment by band director Billy McCormick a.k.a. Billy Sugerfix (drums), Bryon Settle (electric guitar, dobro), Turner Walston (acoustic guitar), Alex Bowers (keyboard), and Peter Kimosh (stand-up bass, electric bass) and dynamic vocal direction and artful arrangements by Glenn Mehrbach make Killer Diller a killer musical.
Chapel Hill, NC actor/director/playwright Paul Ferguson (Good Ol' Girls and The Devil's Dream) provides vivid vignettes for the show's major characters, but the minor characters are much less fleshed out. What little the audience knows about them — and how they fit in to the big picture of Clyde Edgerton's story — makes the audience want to know MORE — much more — about these lovable rascals.
The novel's hero, former juvenile delinquent Wesley Benfield, is a charming scoundrel played with brio by John McGrew. Sentenced to a halfway house as partial expiation for his sins against society, Wesley falls in love with Phoebe Trent (pertly played by SaRAH! Kocz), an overweight but attractive resident of the adjacent Christian diet house. Their comical courtship is one of the show's highlights.
Sharlene Thomas is quite good as Mattie Riggsbee, a genuinely concerned elderly friend who serves as a surrogate mother to Wesley. Carroll Credle is hilarious as the pompous egomaniacal president of the church-related college that sponsors a gospel group, The Noble Defenders of the Word, whose members include Wesley, Phoebe, Wesley's African-American roommate Ben Ashley (C. Delton Streeter), Ben's girlfriend Shanita (Ericka Ross), harlot-like lead singer Sherri Gold (Kimberly Wood), and their partly autistic friend Vernon (Vince Eisenson).
The Noble Defenders of the Word really rock, but are inclined to stray from their college-mandated spiritual repertoire to songs with a decidedly secular bent. Every member of the supporting cast gives a crisp characterization even though some of the secondary characters are really sketchy.
Wade F. Dansby 3, who doubles as the shows set designer, contributes a couple of vivid vignettes as brown-nosing college provost Ned Sears and crusty morning-radio host Good Morning Charlie; and Dansby's sets, Steve Dubay's lighting, David Kemp English's sound design, and Gabrieal Griego's costumes also help Killer Diller impress the audience.
But, in the end, Killer Diller leaves the audience wanting more: to enjoy more of the show's high-octane gospel/blues/rock numbers and to know more about Ben and Shanita and how Vernon came to believe that he was a car.
Ride Again Productions presents Killer Diller Thursday-Friday, Aug. 28-29 and Sept. 4-5 and 11-12, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 30 and Sept. 6 and 13, at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 31 and Sept. 7 and 14, at 3 p.m. in Studio Six of Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $15 Friday and Saturday evening and $12 Thursdays evening and Saturday and Sunday matinees, except $10 students with ID and $5 student-rush tickets available 10 minutes before each performance. 866/463-8659 (High Sierra Tickets). Ride Again Productions: http://www.rideagain.org/. Clyde Edgerton: http://www.clydeedgerton.com/ [inactive 12/03].